The prospect of crossing the Armenian-Iranian border was something over which we’d spent many weeks fretting.
Tenny had been nervous about the idea of cycling in Iran – her home country – ever since we’d first entertained the possibility many months ago. For me, Iran was the most obvious and enticing successor to Armenia, rather than backtracking through Georgia or Turkey, and it was where Tenny’s family still lived, which threw up the idea of a surprise visit. With that in mind, we decided to head in the direction of Iran and cycle for as long as we felt comfortable, before making the remaining distance to Tehran by hitch-hiking or using public transport.
We waved goodbye to the friendly Azeri-Iranian truck driver, who had carried us and our bikes almost 150km over the highest mountain passes I’ve ever encountered and let us sleep in the back of his lorry. It was a chilly mid-September morning, with 20km to ride out of the mountains before the border at Noordouz, sandwiched in the River Araks gorge that marks the Iranian frontier facing Nakhchivan, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and we periodically dismounted in order to perform acrobatic roadside warm-up routines to get the blood flowing and to entertain bored truckers driving petroleum tankers from Iran to Armenia.
These tankers contained fuel to keep Armenia’s fleet of old Ladas and new 4x4’s on the road, while normal supplies were cut during the recent flaring up of the longstanding conflict between Georgia and her neighbouring powers. As has become traditional in today’s world, the episode ballooned out of all proportion in the spotlight of the international media. From watching CNN’s sensational coverage, I could have been forgiven for thinking that a second Cold War was about to erupt. Also following in present tradition, news editors’ heads quickly turned away once the story lost its momentum. Who amongst you can tell me, without resorting to Google, how the Georgia-Russia conflict of 2008 was resolved?
Many truckers coming from Iran are running a side-show in petroleum trading. With government-subsidised fuel prices in Iran at a couple of pence per litre (no typo), it’s no wonder many of them are siphoning off the excess and selling it to Armenian traders, who can then go on to make locally-enormous profits. One man we met lived on the road to the border with his family, in a concrete barn with hanging blankets instead of walls. As his wife went to change the children’s clothes in the rain, and his mother-in-law stood outdoors by the fire pouring boiled peaches into huge glass jars for the coming winter, we sat shivering around the bare wooden table, sipping on hot tea. He explained that he made 5,000 dollars per month in the petrol trade, and asked me if I could install a hands-free mobile phone kit in his 25,000-dollar Mercedes M‑class which he kept round the back.
I cannot explain the logic of this situation; why this man’s wife would prefer her husband to be seen driving a Mercedes than for her and her children to have a comfortable home. There seems to be no logic. Nine months in Armenia had pulled aside the curtain of naivety with which a traveller usually views normal lives in foreign lands. Gradually exposed to me had been the social complexities which led to such unabashed displays of vanity and machismo from all sides – the automobile as an unwavering pinnacle of social status, the deep obsession with shiny music-playing mobile phones, the young women strutting the streets in silly sunglasses and fake designer outfits before going home to their parents’ crumbling tower-blocks, the beggars outside the supermarket selling a 600-dollar box of chocolates.
Maybe some of this rings a few bells, but here it exists on a different level. Here is a country where a worryingly-visible portion of the population feels that they have to compete to such an extent that they compromise what many would see as life’s necessities in order to make a material statement of superiority – and the bare-faced relegation of the massed poverty-stricken to almost sub-human status makes a mockery of the ideas of good faith and charity in a country that proudly exclaims its pious, early adoption of Christianity over 1,600 years ago. I won’t begin on the deprivation of the Armenian people of the basic human right to choose for themselves who should lead them and their country into the future. Democracy? Don’t make me laugh. What kind of society breeds insecurity and hypocrisy on this scale, and allows it to continue propagating unhindered?
The post-Communist struggle for individuality might be a starting point, as I saw similar phenomena in, for example, Georgia, and to a lesser extent in the Balkans, and I hear that other former-Soviet states share the same blight. But even after living amidst this for the best part of a year, I found myself incredulous to the point where I had to physically stifle my nervous, baffled giggling as I sat on the cream leather driver’s seat, reading through the user manual of the in-car entertainment system while Tenny translated the instructions into Armenian and the smell of boiled peaches came up on the wind.
Gone also for me was the novelty of entertaining posses of glazed-eyed vodka-swilling drunks every night. A bitterly cold January night at ‑20°C in my tent was thankfully cut short by a group of railway workers who hurried me and my bike into a dilapidated industrial building in a forgotten valley near the Azeri border, where they inhabited a small room with a wood-burning stove and four iron bedsteads. For one peculiar evening, I bore witness to the spectacle of five ageing men draining several litres of vodka over extended, burbling toasts, accompanied by sporadic discordant bouts of singing and dancing and stumbling across the wooden floorboards. Paint peeled off the yellowed walls, and I sat in an exhausted, bemused state as these wasted souls disappeared into oblivion in front of my eyes on that cold, silent, empty night in the mountains. I’m sure these men had wives, children, families, life-stories. It was one of the saddest displays of human self-destruction I’ve ever experienced.
We found similar isolated patches of Armenia where we would be dragged enthusiastically into the midst of these rowdy drinking and eating occasions. One night we camped in an abandoned beach resort, inhabited only by a bored caretaker as the owner was locked up for protesting against the conduct of the presidential elections back in March. He and a group of other men, similarly lacking anything productive to do with their time, attempted to entice us to join them in the act of getting plastered. A sickeningly large mountain of empty vodka and soft-drink bottles sat within tossing distance of the table outside the caretaker’s caravan. We declined as politely as possible. Night fell, the distant laughing, groaning and coughing slowly faded. The following morning, the caretaker, subdued and alone, told us he drank six litres of vodka a day, and that he had been living on this beach complex for five years. Looking at his yellow, sunken eyes, I knew that this was true. I had had enough of this depressing reality. I needed desperately to escape, to find a place I didn’t understand, where I could be naïve again.
We rolled over the bridge. Our wheels crossed the painted line on the ground that signalled our departure from Armenia and our entrance into the Islamic Republic of Iran. Soldiers grinned and smiled at us as we shakily navigated our way to passport control. So far, so good, I thought, half-expecting an interrogation over the lack of any documentary evidence of our fabricated marriage story, but at the same time well aware that once we had the officials’ sympathy we would likely be waved through unhindered. We surreptitiously brandished the cheap silver wedding rings we’d bought in Yerevan as Tenny smiled sweetly and talked in halting Farsi with the stern chap behind the window. Suddenly it was all smiles, Iranian drivers in the queue stood aside and gave remarks of respect to our bravado (not knowing we’d hitch-hiked the toughest bits), and we were ushered, grinning broadly, into Iran.
I’d heard about the chadors, the full-length black overalls worn by women of conservative disposition to mask their female forms, but I still felt a deep twinge of something when I saw two such women walking through the waiting room of the border complex. I don’t know exactly what the feeling was – part fear, part indignation at a spectacle so unnatural to me, part wonder at the very evident fact that this was simply nothing to the women themselves. They’d chosen to dress in this way. Only their faces were visible – one concealed hand drawing the seam partly over the mouth, black folds of fabric billowing slightly as the feet moved briskly on unseen legs. Imagery floated into my consciousness – the Grim Reaper, Darth Vader, the antagonistic character in a Japanese animated film called Spirited Away. The word chador also means tent, which prompted immature jokes about Iranian camping trips consisting of walking into the mountains and sleeping under a woman.
I felt somewhat guilty, but I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that in this day and age, making this dress-code a law for locals and foreigners alike, based on a couple of passages from an ancient religious text, was a bit… I don’t know… pious? Fundamentalist? Archaic? Later, in Tabriz and Tehran, I would encounter far more liberal interpretations of the law, but that’s a story for another time.
This was a natural border, the river Araks dividing south Armenia’s immense forested valleys from the altogether drier, browner, and more rocky slopes on its Iranian banks. Vegetation almost entirely disappeared in an instant. As many a traveller has remarked, it’s sometimes funny how a line on a map – a fenced and guarded national boundary – can also mark an instant change in wildlife and landscape, as well as culture, language and ethnicity.
We cycled West through the steep, dramatic gorge, a mild headwind heralding ominous grey clouds on the horizon. The road was quiet and empty. No villages were there to greet us. Occasional drivers and motorbikers hooted in welcome. After some time we came to an empty roadside hut, built of mud and straw, sun-baked and as solid as concrete. Giant ants roamed the dusty, stony ground with startling speed. The narrow strips of fertile land bordering the river’s path through the ancient, towering gorge were irrigated and cultivated by people hitherto unseen and unheard. I felt that I had still to be inaugurated into this alien world; that I was entirely out of place, with no knowledge of people’s ways, of the food they ate, of how they made their living from day to day, of how to communicate with them.
The grey clouds became black, the headwind became suddenly strong and gusty, and to our dismay we found ourselves jumping off the bikes and hiding under the poncho behind a large pile of rocks as the rain pelted us mercilessly for nearly an hour. There was nowhere else to hide. The gale blasted past and brought our fully-loaded bikes crashing down onto the road from where we had leant them, but I didn’t risk running to recover them in case of being blown away myself. Tenny cried as we sat amidst the wet rocks, huddled together under the wet, flapping fabric of the poncho. Water trickled uncomfortably down my back and into my shorts. We waited.
At last the rain let up for long enough for us to flag down a passing school bus, the happy drivers of which took us and our belongings four kilometres up the road to the small coaching town of Siyahrood, meaning ‘black river’. I was delighted to discover a tea shop, in the vein of the hundreds of Turkish tea shops Andy and I had visited, complete with permanently blaring television. I reminisced as we hung our sodden clothes from every available protrusion and sat warming our hands on glasses of sweet amber tea.
Then I noticed that the television programming was also in Turkish! I wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn and somehow re-entered Turkey, but we discovered then that this province of Iran, called East Azarbaijan, was populated mainly by Turkic Azeris, speaking their own dialect of Turkish, although they also spoke Farsi, enabling Tenny to communicate with them normally. These ethnic knots are hard to untie: Azerbaijan is a country in its own right, east of Georgia and Armenia, with Russia to the north and Iran to the south, but it also comprises the small territory of Nakhchivan on the far side of Armenia, previously part of Armenia until the Red Army carved up the borders in a quite successful attempt to destroy its conquered nations’ identities and impose its own. (I recognised the distinctive low, concrete, tin-roofed houses on the far side of the river from those in Armenia, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary.)
In addition to this, Iran itself contains the provinces of East Azarbaijan, which is west of Azerbaijan and south of Nakhchivan, and West Azarbaijan, which is south of East Azarbaijan and east of Turkey. Note the different spellings. And they’re all Turkish, but not part of Turkey. Confused yet?!
The tea-shop owner had covered the windows with newspaper so that bus travellers could stop and eat during the day without being disturbed by those fasting outside. It was Ramezan, which we all know from our Religious Education school lessons as Ramadan. As we also know from the aforementioned teachings, this is the month when all Muslims fast during daylight hours, abstaining from eating, drinking and smoking until sunset, at which time they gorge themselves stupid at immense fast-breaking banquets.
Not so in Iran. While government decree is one thing, people’s personal choice is another. Many people and families we met were not observing the fast at all, and continued about their normal daily routines without interruption. In fact, the only real effect of Ramadan on us was that we could not comfortably eat or drink in the streets of towns, cities and villages during the day. Out in the countryside, nobody looked twice at us as we sat on the roadsides having our lunch. People regularly stopped their cars to give us gifts of apples, walnuts, cucumbers, chocolate and other snacks without the slightest elicitation.
As for the iftars, the supposed fast-breaking evening feasts, these usually consisted of a light meal of tea, dates, grapes, maybe some cheese and bread. The real feast occurred in the mornings, before sunrise, when a complete meal, such as would otherwise be had in the evening, would be eaten. But, as we noted, people often interpreted the Islamic laws in their own ways, or ignored them altogether, contrary to everything I’d been taught about Islam at school.
This was the case with Mr. Sabri and his family, who I mentioned in my previous article. We arrived at his house one evening after riding out of the gorge and across the flat, green floodplain to Jolfa, where once again the mountains loomed on both sides of the river. We knew we were in for a big climb after Jolfa as we headed south over the range towards Marand and finally Tabriz. We called Mr. Sabri and he arrived a little later in his car with his wife and daughter. He told us we should cycle 12 kilometers uphill to the small town where he lived, but after hearing that this would take us around two hours, he phoned a friend who arrived in a pick-up truck to shuttle us directly to his home. I sat in the pick-up and completely failed to make myself understood to the old man who drove it, so I sat and watched the shallow, dusty slopes pass by, noting the road to Tabriz as it wound slowly up between the big, brown, rounded peaks.
The house was luxurious – white marble clad the outside, and we wheeled our bikes into the roomy basement garage and exited out the far side into an enclosed patio garden, complete with apple trees, grapevines and a terrace that would catch the morning sun. As Mr. Sabri busied himself lighting a barbecue, we went inside and sat a little nervously on the pristine leather sofas watching Turkish pop music on the television, which instantly brought back the horror of two-and-a-half months of non-stop Turkish pop music late last year.
In the open-plan, fully-furnished and roomy kitchen, our host’s wife and daughter sat on the floor and prepared the food. After the meal, Mr. Sabri took us out to the neighbouring farms to see what he did for a living as a vet. His speciality was artificial insemination of cows; selective breeding for the best milk or meat, as well as more routine work. He would leave each farm with a bag of fresh fruit or vegetables, or a bottle of fresh milk. It was fascinating.
We stopped in the town of Hadi Shahr on the way home. It was 10:30pm but the streets were full of life, people, lights, greengrocers, neon signs, butchers, mobile phone shops, cyclists, motorbikes, cars. Turquoise light illuminated the spires of the town’s mosque from somewhere within its walls. It suddenly occurred to me that I was in a modern, developed country, where people had things to do; they had livelihoods, money, a working infrastructure; they had everything they needed. Gone was the ill-concealed struggle to make ends meet that I’d lived with for so long without appreciating the gravity of how it was in comparison with a country like Turkey, or Western Europe, or, as I now understood, Iran. This was not a poor place. There was no obvious unemployment problem. It was full of people creating meaning for themselves through the familiar methods of material worship, cultural expression, education, the endless trading of money for goods. It was a refreshing environment to be in, after so many desolate, soulless towns of malnourished industry and trade, and the romantic, ecstatic, short-lived escape of vodka within easy reach.
The road continued uphill for another 25km. Tenny borrowed my MP3 player and, to my delight, blasted her way up into the mountains without any of the hesitation or depression I’d seen at the start of the trip. We camped in some trees near a mosque. The next day we would reach Marand, and the following day the city of Tabriz.